The defeat of the PCs seemed unthinkable a few months ago. The notion they could lose to the NDP would have been laughable. But this is how politics in Alberta works. Every 30 or 40 years, a Chinook blows over the mountain and sweeps in a new government who has never before held power. So after a wild couple of years, we can probably all ignore Alberta politics until the middle of the Century (when Stephen Harper’s granddaughter runs for Premier).
Even though the polls foretold an NDP win, Albertans have rightly grown cynical of the polls, so there were still plenty of surprised faces on all sides of the spectrum tonight. Outside Alberta, it won’t just be surprise tomorrow, but consternation over how Alberta could turn orange. With the NDP floundering in Manitoba, it seems likely Alberta will be Canada’s lone socialist province this time next year. The province will stand out like an old man in an orange speedo at a formal ball.
Alberta is used to standing out, but for different reasons. For years, the province cultivated and cherished its reputation as the bad boy of confederation. There were the “Let the eastern bastards freeze in the dark!” bumper stickers. Ann Coulter called the province “the good Canadians”. It likely didn’t help that Ralph Klein was the face of Alberta for a decade.
The thing is, that bad boy reputation was always more bluster than reality. Everyone noticed when Calgarians elected a Harvard-educated Muslim as Mayor in 2010 – all the more, because those latte sipping pinkos in Toronto elected Rob Ford a week earlier. Three years later, Edmontonians elected 34-year Don Iveson – Canada’s first openly nerd mayor.
But Edmonton has always been dubbed “Redmonton” for its political leanings, and Nenshi is only the latest in a string of Liberal mayors from Calgary. If you look at the results from the last few provincial elections, you’ll quickly realize Alberta hasn’t been a Conservative monolith since before Calgary hosted the Olympics.
Yes, progressives flocked to the PCs last election, but only because Alison Redford looked and sounded like a progressive. In every other election from the past 30 years, over a third of Albertans have voted for parties on the left.
But that’s always been a more complicated story to tell than the caricature of crazy conservative Alberta which, admittedly, some of our politicians (*cough*Rob Anders*cough*) did not help to dispel.
Similarly, many will simplify the story of tonight to Albertans swinging wildly to the left. While it’s true the province has changed, those changes have been gradual. What really happened in 2015 was Rachel Notley looking like a safe option for change, at a time when voters wanted change. The fact that Notley made Thomas Mulcair feel as welcome in Alberta as a rat (or worse, a Canucks fan) in the dying days of this campaign tells you all you need to know about the strength of the NDP brand. So don’t expect “howdy” to be replaced with “welcome comrade” the next time you land in Calgary.
No, Alberta hasn’t changed. But the perception of Alberta will. Rachel Notley, Naheed Nenshi, and Don Iveson are now the face of the province. The myth of Alberta as a conservative wasteland is dead.
The 2012 clash between Danielle Smith and Alison Redford was an epic battle between two gifted politicians. It was must-see-TV for political junkies. The 2015 campaign? It reads like a script of Gilligan’s Island with bumbling gaffes and nonsensical plot lines. I mean, honestly, the prospect of an NDP government in Alberta seems about as plausible as a coconut phone.
A month ago, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek Alberta political primer about Jim Prentice’s inevitable march to a landslide election victory.
The Mainstreet Technologies automated phone survey of 3,121 Alberta voters conducted on April 13 shows the Wildrose and NDP in a statistical tie for first place at 31 per cent and 30 per cent support among decided voters, respectively.
The Tories are in third place with 24 per cent, while the Liberals come in at 10 per cent, and the Alberta Party at five per cent in the survey.
I guess that shows why you should never listen to the musings of someone living in Ontario about Alberta politics.
In my defense, when Brian Jean launched his Wildrose leadership bid on February 25th, he didn’t even pretend he had a chance:
“Bluntly, I don’t think it’s one we can win at this stage. It is a rebuilding one but we need in Alberta a strong, solid opposition that can keep the government to account,” Jean, a 52-year-old lawyer and businessman, said with a number of Wildrose candidates standing behind him.
One assumes Jim Prentice felt the same way, or he wouldn’t have broken Alberta’s fixed election date law in his eagerness to go to the polls.
So what on earth happened? How is it that the PCs are now bleeding on both sides?
The orange wave is easier to explain. Here’s the combined Liberal/NDP vote share for the last 6 elections:
Despite the caricature of Alberta as a conservative hegemony, the left regularly collects over a third of the vote. Liberal and NDP voters rallied to Alison Redford to stop the Wildrose last election, but there’s likely a lot of buyers remorse on that front. Prentice has done little for progressive Albertans since taking power, and by showing a deaf ear on the issue of Gay-Straight alliances, he essentially ripped up the “Wildrose are scary bigots” card that Redford played to perfection three years ago. With progressives abandoning the PCs, it’s understandable they would gravitate to the NDP – they have a strong leader in Rachel Notley, while the provincial Liberals are in complete disarray.
The dynamics on the right are more difficult to understand.
The Wildrose looked like a smoldering ruin after Danielle Smith’s defection this fall. They’ve still got money in the bank, and a new leader – but Brian Jean was an unimpressive backbencher, and he’s had little time to introduce himself to voters. With all due respect to Jean, it’s safe to say he’s not responsible for the Wildrose resurgence. Rather, this appears to be driven by anger over a bad news budget that pleased no one.
Given many pollsters wrote PC obituaries three years ago, I haven’t talked to a single person who believes Prentice will lose. The common wisdom is that once Albertans blow off steam over the budget, they’re going to realize they’re electing a government, and neither the Wildrose nor the NDP were even pretending to be ready for government a few weeks ago.
Danielle Smith was someone who sounded like she could run the province. Brian Jean? Not so much. Smith must sob every time a new poll comes out.
But Prentice is now fighting a war on two fronts, with 44 years of baggage on his shoulders and the low price of oil pulling him down. If the last month has taught us anything, it’s that we’d be foolish to make any predictions about how this one will turn out.
Blogging has been sporadic of late, but with Alberta barrelling towards an election, now is likely a good time for another Alberta Politics FAQ.
When will the next Alberta election be?
Alberta’s fixed-ish election date legislation calls for a vote between March 1st and May 31st, 2016. Prentice, being a true reformer at heart, has said he will respect this.
Ha ha. No, of course not. Most expect an election call to immediately follow the March 26th budget.
Alberta’s fixed election date law has proven to be about as binding as Alberta’s balanced budget law.
So who’s going to win the election?
Well, yeah, that seems likely, but isn’t there a chance…
But surely if there are a few more “blame Alberta” moments, and…
No. Not one of the opposition parties is even pretending they’re fighting for anything but second place.
This election was over the moment Danielle Smith decided the election wasn’t worth fighting.
So why did Danielle Smith cross the floor?
A year ago, Alison Redford was under fire for spending $45,000 of taxpayer funds for a charter flight back from Nelson Mandela’s funeral (plus $3 for headphones). And because she spent thousands to fly her daughter and friend on government planes. And because she wanted to spend government funds on a private penthouse suite for herself in Edmonton. And because she had her staff create “ghost flyers” so that she wouldn’t have to sit next to the proles on her flights.
It just proves the old saying that governments tend to grow out of touch during their 13th consecutive term in power.
Exit Redford. Enter Prentice.
Prentice quickly announced two popular policies:
1. Scrapping an unpopular plan to redesign Alberta license plates.
2. Not being Alison Redford.
While this gave the PCs a jolt of life, there were still storm clouds on the horizon:
1. Prentice was leading a 43-year old government which had barely escaped defeat two years earlier.
2. With oil prices tanking, he would need to raise taxes or cut services in his first budget.
3. In one of his first leadership tests, he completely bungled the issue of Gay-Straight Alliances in schools. His compromise would have forced teenagers to go to court if a school board said no. His cold “rights are never absolute” response left many irate. “Maybe that should be on the license plate” tweeted Rick Mercer.
By showing a deft ear, Prentice had effectively torn up the “Wildrose are bigots” card he no doubt intended to play during the next election.
But hey, Prentice had an insurmountable 6-point lead in the polls. And he managed to hold 4 PC seats in by-elections. I mean, really, what chance did Danielle Smith have?
So, down by 1 goal in the second period, Danielle Smith concluded the situation was hopeless, and she gave up.
What now for the Wildrose Party?
The Wildrosers will select a new leader on March 28th, at which point they’ll have a day or two to print the signs, draft a platform, record commercials, round out their candidate slate, and find a bus that doesn’t cause us all to giggle.
Three candidates are contesting the leadership:
You may know Drew Barnes as one of the “Wildrose 5″ who did not defect.
You may know Brian Jean as the former backbench CPC MP who sent crossword puzzles about himself to his constituents (what’s a 9-letter word for excessive preoccupation with ones self?).
You may know Linda Osinchuk if you are related to Linda Osinchuk.
Still, even though they are now little more than a fringe group of angry right wingers, the Wildrose Party still said “we’re too good for you, Rob Anders“. Which shows they have higher standards than the federal Conservatives, if nothing else.
And the Liberals?
They’re also leaderless, after Raj Sherman abruptly resigned last month. They won’t be selecting a permanent leader until after the election, but it’s not like they’ve had much success with leaders lately, so why not?
So the opposition parties are all leaderless heading into the election?
You’re forgetting about the NDP, which is understandable. But Rachel Notley is an impressive politician.
Still, the NDP are non-factors outside Edmonton – they failed to crack 4% of the vote in any of the three Calgary by-elections last fall. Those were the same by-elections that caused Danielle Smith to thrown in the towel, and she got 9 times as many votes as the NDP.
And with the divided vote on the left, it’s hard to imagine the NDP taking more than 6 or 7 seats in Edmonton.
Still, that will likely be enough to make Notley leader of the opposition.
Yeah, vote splitting…it doesn’t really make sense for Alberta to have 2 parties to the left of the PCs does it?
Oh, you are not going to like what I have to tell you next.
The divided left has been a problem in Alberta for years. So progressives looked at the situation and reached the only logical conclusion as to what was needed: A third progressive party.
Enter the Alberta Party. After a lot of listening and a lot of tweeting, the Alberta Party earned just 17,172 votes province-wide last election.
So, at least those vote splitting concerns proved unfounded.
Well then, what’s this about Laurie Blakeman working to unite the left?
Last week, Blakeman announced she had been nominated by the Liberals, Alberta Party, and Alberta Greens (yeah, there’s a fourth party on the left) as their candidate in Edmonton Centre.
While I applaud Ms. Blakeman for this step towards uniting the left, this is about as small a step as one could possibly take. Step is likely too strong a word. Maybe inching? It’s barely a new development, as neither the Alberta Party nor the Greens ran against Blakeman last election. In 2008, the two parties earned a combined 514 votes in Edmonton Centre. I guess having their logos on her lit makes for nice symbolism, but this isn’t exactly the Wayne Gretzky endorsement.
So basically you’re saying that with a long time, scandal-plagued government battling an economic collapse, the opposition is leaderless, infective, and divided.
Is Jim Prentice the luckiest guy in the world?
Yes. Yes, he is.
Here’s a fun exercise for aspiring communications directors out there. Complete the following sentence, in a way that isn’t offesnive: “I’m going to put this in terms of colours but it’s not meant to be about race…”.
Now try that, using the words “whities” and “brown people”.
Every December, I name a “Person of the Year” – the individual who left their mark on Canadian politics over the past year, for good or for bad. Below is a list of recent choices:
2013: Rob Ford & Naheed Nenshi
2012: Allison Redford
2011: Jack Layton
2010: Rob Ford & Naheed Nenshi
2009: Jim Flaherty
2008: Stephane Dion
2007: Jean Charest
2006: Michael Ignatieff
2005: Belinda Stronach
2004: Ralph Klein
I’ve never picked Stephen Harper because, duh, obviously the Prime Minister is going to have an impact on politics. And 2014 was no exception. In a year which was very much the prelude to the 2015 election, it was inevitable that Harper would be front in centre – would he call an early election? Would he take a walk in the snow? What would he do with the surplus?
So if you strip Harper away, who does that leave?
The attacks on Parliament Hill stunned the country and will not be soon forgotten, but I doubt terrorism and security will be the defining issues of the next election. Kevin Vickers deserves every honour we can bestow but we’re singling out individuals who made a political impact, not heroes.
The death of Jim Flaherty was another tragedy that exposed the human side of politics. But with the exception of Flaherty’s doubts on the merits of income splitting, Joe Oliver has largely continued on the course his predecessor set.
The real world also cast its ugly shadow into the surreal world of Toronto municipal politics, with Rob Ford’s cancer diagnosis. Although John Tory winning something is a small miracle, he was elected precisely because he won’t inspire national and international headlines. So expect his impact on the national scene to be rather muted in the coming years.
So we’re left looking to the provinces for our person of the year. And there are no shortages of candidates.
The implosion of my 2012 Person of the Year Alison Redford was breathtaking, and might very well be the deathblow to Canada’s longest serving government…Oh wait. Who’s that riding into town on a horse to save the day? Why, it’s Jim Prentice. In only a few short months, Jim Prentice has taken the PCs from death’s door to a point where they are basically guaranteed to govern until 2020. Obviously enough, one of the all time great capitulations by Danielle Smith helped. The only thing holding me back from naming Prentice as my Person of the Year is that these “out of the ordinary” events have become rather ordinary in Alberta. As the cliché goes, these are just the sort of things that happen to governments during their 12th term.
Elsewhere, the Manitoba NDP and Newfoundland PCs are in the process of imploding, and seem destined for defeat unless they can find their own Jim Prentice. New Brunswick said hello to a new Premier, and PEI said goodbye to theirs. In Quebec, Philippe Couillard‘s victory doesn’t feel so surprising, but we forget how certain everyone was of a PQ victory. One PKP fist pump later, and no one is talking about another referendum.
The story was very much the same in Ontario. Which brings us to the Woman of the Year:
Although Kathleen Wynne led wire-to-wire, her victory was far from certain. The Liberals were going for a fourth mandate, and many die hard Liberals privately acknowledged they didn’t really deserve re-election. Baggage has a way of building over 10 years, and Wynne did not enjoy Prentice’s ability to come in as an outsider with clean hands. Hudak and Horwath both had paths to victory, and a scenario where the Liberals got squeezed to third place wasn’t outside the realm of possibility.
Yet Wynne was bold, and proudly progressive. Her opponents certainly made life easier for her, but she was a rookie against two leaders who had done this before. And she won. Decisively.
Though many in Ontario would disagree, Ontario is not Canada. Yet behind the scenes, the Ontario election served as a testing ground for the federal parties, and the lessons learned will be applied federally. Mulcair’s sharp turn to the left this fall was no doubt a response to the backlash Horwath saw for running to the right of the Liberals. And the Tim Hudak campaign of 2014 will serve as a cautionary tale for decades to come.
Since her win, Wynne has inserted herself into the national dialogue in a way Ontario Premiers have been shy to do in the past. Kathleen Wynne may not look or sound like Danny Williams or Ralph Klein, but she appears eager to assume the title of chief antagonist to the Prime Minister. Regardless of whether or not she ever gets her dinner date with Stephen Harper, she’s a player on the national stage. That will matter if Ontario turns into a battleground in 2015, as most expect. On pensions, on pipelines, on the environment – expect Wynne’s voice to be heard not just in Ontario, but nationally.
It’s being spun as a “reconciliation”, but if reports are to be believed, it’s very much the Wildrose rebels crawling back to their former comrades and begging for their political lives. In exchange for blowing up their party, Danielle Smith and a half dozen MLAs will be given seats on the government benches and a Jim Prentice endorsement for their local PC nomination. Added to this are a few token “concessions” to provide cover: No sales tax; A list of infrastructure priorities; A commitment to teaching the “3 Rs” in school. Bold stuff.
I guess once the PCs agreed to keep “Wildrose Country” on the license plate, there really weren’t any big battles left worth fighting.
The great irony is that a party created to give the grassroots a voice is trying to self-immolate in the least grassroots way possible. The McKay-Harper merger may have been negotiated in the backrooms, but it was approved by over 90% of both party memberships. In this instance, Smith and her MLAs have set the house ablaze and run out the back door. Sure, members are welcome to try and rebuild, but the reality is the Wildrose is unlikely to become much more than it was before Smith brought the party to relevance – a few angry men screaming on the fringes.
As the federal unite the right movement showed, there are times when principles must be compromised for the sake of pragmatism. There may have been fundamental differences between the Alliance and PCs, but they recognized the alternative to merger was another decade of Liberal rule. You could accuse them of being in it for power, but it was still power driven by purpose.
Here? Suffice to say, Danielle Smith did not do this to derail the Raj Sherman juggernaut. After all, progressives may be the only group in Alberta more dysfunctional than the Edmonton Oilers. Their solution to the vote split on the left has been to create more parties on the left.
Indeed, while the left had zero chance of winning the next election, the Wildrose were still very much in the game. Polling this fall showed the Wildrose and PCs within a few points of each other, a far cry from the 10-30 point leads Alison Redford enjoyed after taking the leadership. The Wildrose admittedly under-performed in fall by-elections, but the Jim Prentice honeymoon is not going to last forever. There’s an old saying in politics that “time for a change” sentiment really peaks towards the end of a party’s 12th term, and Prentice’s handling of the gay rights debate last week showed he is just as adept at creating problems for himself as his predecessor. With oil prices cratering, the PCs will soon find themselves facing difficult fiscal decisions.
This wasn’t a case of “if you can’t beat them, join ’em”. True, the Alberta PCs are the longest serving government in Canadian history for a reason, but Smith could have won, had she chosen to stay and fight.
She chose not to. Maybe she was tired. Maybe the perks of an eventual Cabinet position were too much to pass up. Regardless of the reason, there’s one inescapable conclusion. When you make as much noise as Smith did about a government being tired and corrupt – and then join them – it’s clear you never really believed in your convictions as much as you claimed to.
In that respect, she’ll be right at home in her new party.